Danish director Lone Scherfig (“Italian for Beginners”) has garnered a lot of attention for her first English language film, “An Education.” It is the story of a young woman impatient to be independent and sophisticated, and what happens when she meets an older man. It is set in 1961 London, on the brink of a shift from post-war deprivation to the wild and audacious era of Carnaby Street and the Beatles.
NM: I related to the film as a former young girl and as a parent — I identified with everyone.
LS: That’s good!
NM: The period detail is so exact. That era, on the brink of so much change, and you get that in the production design.
LS: It is a period that hasn’t been depicted much. The period itself is bursting with appetite for the future but doesn’t know what it will be.
NM: Like the main character!
LS: A lot of her frustration is because she is heading for a future that is better than she can imagine. She wonders why she should get an education just to have a life she did not want, the few options that were available to her. She does not know what she wants. She says she does not want to feel anything and the first thing she does is jump straight into the arms of this man. She is bright but still completely innocent.
My main task as a director was to trust the script, not to be over-inventive, just to tell the story. We don’t have soldiers getting killed; we have a girl who loses her trust in other people.
NM: The book was written by a woman based on her own life, but the screenplay was written by Nick Hornby, better known for writing about men and boys.
LS: This is the first time I’ve had a female main character. You are just interested in that other species. But now I am so far from being 17 — of course I can remember and I have a daughter who is 15, but I could not have done it 10 years ago. I have a warmth for a girl at that age now that I don’t identify with her any more.
Tell me about working with the lovely and elegant Rosamund Pike, who plays the not very bright girlfriend of a slightly shady character.
LS: She’s never done comedy before. I love casting against type. To have her inventing herself as a comedian as you go was very exciting. She combines some comedy and something melancholic. You can have very stylistically different characters but not stick out. We did a lot of variations. And it is wonderful to see her realize, “I can do this.” She does research and she does eight different takes trying out the mechanics of comedy. And she was the only person in the cast who had been to Oxford, so she helped us understand that environment.
NM: Is there a theme that you keep coming back to in the stories you like to tell?
LS: Insecurity, people who can’t speak for themselves, people who are slightly invisible, odd couples, men in their late 30’s. The more I do, the more I identify my own footprint as a director. Now I can look back and see where I’ve been. When the world has been in a bad way, I’ve felt “I must do comedy.” But now, I think I can do something darker.
NM: Will you make more films in English?
LS: Yes! There are so many wonderful English-speaking actors, a great acting tradition. And it’s a very rich language, more expressive and precise than my own language.
NM: There has been a lot of focus on your young star, Carey Mulligan, who is luminous in this movie. What was it about her that sang to you?
LS: Singing is a good word. She hit the right emotional notes. You feel for her. She was believable as someone who was a virgin. She has a good sense of taste in her acting, very versatile. I started working with her, even acted with her. The costume and hairstyle department were very important in helping her develop the character. That dress she wears the first night she goes out, much too warm, carrying her mom’s handbag, was perfect. The costume designer got a lot of personal photo albums instead of relying on magazines and reference books, we trusted in reality.